Bush takes the offensive on Iraq, outlines plans
US President George W. Bush sought to shore up flagging support for his Iraq policies, outlining broad plans for the country's return to self-rule, including the demolition of the notorious Abu Ghraib prison.
Faltering in public opinion polls, with his approval rating at an all-time low, Bush delivered the first in what is to be a series of confidence-building speeches in which he described a five-step process for Iraq's return to sovereignty on June 30.
Under the plan, a transitional administration takes over on June 30 to prepare for January elections that will choose a national assembly to draft a new constitution that will allow a permanent government to be chosen by the end of next year.
Earlier Monday, the United States and Britain presented a new draft resolution on Iraq to the UN Security Council, in a bid to gain global support for the plan.
In his speech to the Army War College here, Bush warned that "there are difficult days ahead and the way forward may sometimes appear chaotic."
Yet he vowed the handover would take place on schedule and that the US-led coalition would not be defeated by insurgents blamed for the recent surge in violence.
"We will persevere, and defeat this enemy, and hold this hard-won ground for the realm of liberty," he said, adding that Washington's goal was not limited to military success.
"America's task in Iraq is not only to defeat an enemy, it is to give strength to a friend, a free, representative government that serves its people and fights on their behalf," Bush said. "And the sooner this goal is achieved, the sooner our job will be done."
However, the president did not set out a specific date for the withdrawal of US and other coalition forces, which the draft UN resolution envisions remaining in Iraq for at least a year.
Instead, he said the current US troop level, which now stands at 138,000, would remain the same for "as long as necessary" and could grow depending on the situation on the ground and requests from military commanders.
"If they need more troops, I will send them," Bush said.
Democratic presidential hopeful John Kerry said Monday he saw little new in Bush's speech.
"The president laid out general principles tonight, most of which we've heard before," the Massachusetts senator said in a statement.
"What's most important now is to turn these words into action by offering presidential leadership to the nation and to the world."
"That's going to require the president to genuinely reach out to our allies so the United States doesn't have to continue to 'go it alone' and to create the stability necessary to allow the people of Iraq to move forward," he said
In his speech, Bush did not unveil any new policy initiatives, but did say that Abu Ghraib, the site of numerous atrocities under Saddam Hussein's regime as well as the scene of abuses of Iraqi detainees by US troops, would be demolished after Washington constructs a new prison facility.
"When that prison is completed, detainees at Abu Ghraib will be relocated," he said. "Then, with the approval of the Iraqi government, we will demolish the Abu Ghraib prison, as a fitting symbol of Iraq's new beginning."
Faced with new polls showing only 41 to 47 percent of the American public approve of the job he is doing as president, Bush also sought to convince voters that he would seek greater international support for the Iraqi transition and expand the number of foreign troops contributors to the stabilization force.
"We will ... encourage more international support and move toward a national election that will bring forward new leaders empowered by the Iraqi people," Bush said.
At the United Nations, where the new resolution was distributed to the 15 members of the Security Council, Washington and London were looking to do just that but diplomats said many blanks remained to be filled.
The draft, which formalizes an end to the US-led occupation more than one year after the war that toppled Saddam, sets no date for US and British troops to leave Iraq and gives them wide-ranging powers to maintain order and fight "terrorism."
It calls for the Security Council to review the multinational force after one year, a timetable which could be sped up if the transitional government requests.
But crucial issues such as the relationship between US forces and the new government would only be clarified once the new government is assembled by UN envoy Lakhdar Brahimi, who has called for the administration to be headed by a president and a prime minister who will oversee 26 ministries, 12 of which are already under the control of Iraqis.
Bush said Brahimi would name members of the transitional government this week.
In addition to the effort at the United Nations, Bush said he would look for a bigger contribution from NATO and the White House said the matter would be a major item on the agenda when the alliance's leaders meet next month in Istanbul.
Former secretary of state Madeleine Albright said Bush left open several questions during his speech.
"He laid out five points (on the future of Iraq) but they raised as many questions as he provided ideas about," Albright told CNN.
Albright said Bush did little to assure the public that Iraqis would support the new government, or how to improve security, rebuild the country, bring in additional foreign troops, or hold elections.
"There are many, many questions and I don't think there was anything particularly new.
"It was a little bit more organized than the ideas that we've heard before."
"The question is whether the president now has the credibility to bring about the kind of international cooperation he is calling for," she said.